The state institution now known as the Central Virginia Training Center has sat on a hillside overlooking the James River for 118 years.
Established as a home for those suffering from epilepsy, the Madison Heights facility grew into the largest residential institution for people with mental disabilities in the nation and the oldest in Virginia.
Now it’s closing.
By June, this storied institution that played a pivotal role in history and in the lives of tens of thousands of Virginians will be empty save for a small contingent of staff.
CVTC’s slow but inevitable closure comes as a result of a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, after it deemed residents of Virginia’s training centers were harmed in large institutional settings.
Only 33 patients remained on the 350-acre campus in late October, down from an all-time high of almost 3,700, CVTC director Dick Roberts said.
Once a major employer in the region, its staff is leaving by the day.
Of the 90-some buildings on campus, 10 still serve patients and staff. Most of the remainder sit vacant, decaying under the forces of time and neglect.
Founded in 1910 as the Virginia State Epileptic Colony, CVTC sits on farmland purchased from the proceeds of land donated to Western State Hospital in Staunton in 1905, according to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
The colony was established in Madison Heights because of the work of state Senator Aubrey Ellis Strode, who represented Amherst and Nelson counties for two terms, the first starting in 1906, according to the University of Virginia.
“He was the one trying to get [the facility] to Amherst County,” said Paul Lombardo, a professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law, who researched Strode while at the University of Virginia. “He knew the major benefits of having that institution there.”
In 1906, Strode, in collaboration with Dr. Albert Priddy and Western State Hospital Superintendent Joseph DeJarnette, drafted legislation authorizing the colony’s placement in Madison Heights.
The colony was designed to serve 100 patients with epilepsy. It opened with 94 patients, 33 employees and just one medical staff member, Priddy, on May 16, 1911.
One of the first buildings constructed on campus held two 40-bed wards. The campus also included the three-story colonial house original to the farm and the two-story colonial cottage created by enlarging a servant’s house. The property remained a working farm until 1957.
Just two years after the facility’s founding, a 60-bed building was constructed so it could take in “feeble-minded” women, a catch-all term for the mentally challenged, uneducated and undesirable — unwed mothers, prostitutes, and those who ran counter to the law.
“When they opened, they had 100 patients but very quickly outgrew the buildings,” said Reve Carwile, safety director at CVTC. “You have buildings built in 1910, 1912, 1913. They were building buildings as fast as they could.”
The colony grew into a small town with a post office and railroad spur track for supply deliveries.
By 1919, the population at the facility had soared to 508 — 351 patients with epilepsy and 157 classified as “feeble-minded,” according to the state. That year, the institution changed its name to the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
“The whole community was self-contained, isolated from surrounding Madison Heights and the Lynchburg area,” Roberts said.
By 1924, the population reached 734 residents. Also that year, Virginia passed its sterilization law of 1924, which read its institutions held “many defective persons who if now discharged or paroled, would likely become, by the propagation of their kind, a menace to society.”
A 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the law, forever linking the colony with the now-discredited eugenics movement.
Although sterilization procedures last were noted in the colony’s annual report in 1956, it is believed procedures continued until 1972. An estimated 3,800 individuals were sterilized at the colony.
By 1940, the facility’s name changed to the Lynchburg State Colony.
Yellow fever research was conducted there to aid World War II efforts. The colony’s annual reports of 1943 and 1944 make reference to a U.S. public health department technician placed at the colony.
The report read, “Since the beginning of the war there has been a number of casualties due to yellow fever vaccinations. The public health department selected this institution to do some original research work trying to find the cause of these fatalities.”
U.S. troops were getting hepatitis after receiving the vaccination, threatening war efforts. Today, no records of the experiments exist other than in the director’s notes. The source of the infection was traced to tainted serum used in manufacturing the vaccine.
On a recent tour of the campus, Carwile pointed out a building that housed conscientious objectors who took the place of staff members who fought in World War II.
“They came and lived there, worked on the farm and as direct care staff. We know each person took the position of someone in military service,” he said. “There was a little resistance to them at first but by the time they left, the staff loved them.”
In 1948, the colony had 1,720 patients. Soon, plans for a $1.5 million building program were drafted to compensate for the 250-bed shortage.
Mamie Ogden started her career as an attendant at the colony in 1942, according to recollections she wrote for The News & Advance in 1982. Ogden wrote of working 12-hour days, 6 days per week for $34.50 per month. When she was hired, the wards had about 100 residents each.
“They were here mostly because they were mean and sent here to be kept out of reform school,” Ogden wrote.
Patient clothing was made in the campus sewing room and didn’t have bright colors. All of the dishes used were tin, since the more violent patients would break other types of material, she wrote.
“In the 1950s, things began to look better — money was appropriated for buildings and this relieved us of some of the crowded conditions, working conditions improved, increase in salary, shorter working hours,” she wrote.
The 1950s also marked a philosophical shift for the institution to training patients for life outside its walls, and its name changed in 1953 to Lynchburg Training School and Hospital.
That year, the campus housed 2,291 patients and 560 staff members. The center employed teachers for academics, home economics, cosmetology, shoe repair and more.
“Our philosophy in training the mental defective might be expressed as follows: Each individual is entitled to an opportunity to adjust at his own level,” Dr. W.I. Prichard told The News in 1955. “We should develop each child to his fullest, making him as independent and self-sustaining as his limited capacities will permit. Mental deficiency is now recognized as primarily an educational and a social problem. We cannot cure it — but we can greatly improve it by training care.”
The center’s population reached 2,347 by 1956, and overcrowding led to an admission cap, according to the DBHDS.
Construction projects added another 346 beds by 1965. Still, the population continued to rise.
By 1972, the training center’s population peaked at 3,686 and all but emergency admissions ceased.
Crowding was such an issue the Department of Mental Health required the facility to decrease its population annually by 10 percent, while increasing access to community-based services.
The population dropped to 3,156 by 1973. Three older buildings were demolished the following year, and the Copes Medical-Surgical Building opened. By 1975, all patients had their own beds instead of mattresses on the floor.
Three regional centers opened four years later, further alleviating crowding. Community Service boards had been created, and discharge plans became a part of the admissions process. The patient population declined to 2,154 and those who remained institutionalized were considered profoundly mentally disabled.
The facility’s name changed one final time to Central Virginia Training Center in 1983; its population declined to 1,724 as it turned its attention to caring for the profoundly disabled.
By 1986, the campus included 90 buildings, 29 of which were residential units. It had an annual budget of $52 million with 1,550 residents and 2,400 employees, The News & Advance reported.
Nine years later, the population dropped to 544 patients, cared for by a staff of 1,500 on a $70 million budget.
The turn of the century marked the beginning of the end of Central Virginia Training Center.
The U.S. Department of Justice began a three-year investigation into CVTC and other training centers in 2008. The investigation found Virginia harmed patients in training centers by keeping them in institutions, finding residents had little to no interaction with those who are not disabled, denied freedoms of choice and sometimes physically or chemically restrained.
The Department of Justice demanded the state shut down training centers and, in 2012, Virginia agreed to close all but one. That year, the CVTC had 360 residents and 1,250 employees.
Roberts, who starting at CVTC in 2017, said more than 100 residents have moved out in the past two years. Services have been consolidated into a small grouping of buildings.
The lobby of the administrative building holds the few remaining artifacts left on campus — the grandfather clock bearing Priddy’s name and paintings reflecting campus life. Most items from the campus of historical significance have been turned over to the Library of Virginia for preservation.
A cemetery on grounds contains 1,080 graves and remains in use for families of patients who wish to have their loved ones buried there. Roberts said the last burial was in 2017.
At one time, hundreds of employees lived on the CVTC campus; now it’s just Roberts. As the center slowly closes, he said two populations are increasing: deer and groundhogs.
As the campus empties, questions remain: What will happen to its crumbling buildings and how will its complicated legacy be remembered?
“You have to give credit to the people — the doctors and the nurses who had a philanthropic goal,” Lombardo said. “They wanted to take care of people who had no place to go. ...The legacy of the colony forces you to think in two directions at once — the harms that occurred there and the benefits realized to patients.”
Sidener is the special publications editor for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5539.